There are plenty of topics regarding the Union Blue that I could pinpoint in my first piece for this site. That, in large part, is because the 2011-2012 season of Blue Jackets hockey was like that scene in The Strangers
where the record player begins to skip as Liv Tyler painstakingly searches her dark cabin for maniacs. The point being: there’s work here to be done.
The organization is in an awkward spot. They need patron patience to allow for the rebuilding process, yet those same patrons watch what clubs like Minnesota and Nashville have accomplished in virtually the same lifespan. The plain fact is the climb for Columbus out of the league’s doldrums isn’t an overnight job. Nor does it need a single tool to fix. It takes a specific blend of draft work, free agency, and player development to provide another competitive product for the fan base.
To GM Scott Howson’s credit, he’s making the effort to address the club’s glaring needs. Aside from the Islanders’ proposed “super deal”, the team has gotten solid feedback on the latest draft class. It’s a batch highlighted by a projected sure fire defenseman who could play double-digit seasons and a pair of goaltenders that has enough potential to grow into Blue Jacket staples down the road. While this group aims to “Join The Battle” in due time, it, for the most part, will not be part of Columbus’ first steps back into the spotlight.
That task falls to who the club has picked up this summer. Along with the re-signing of RW Jared Boll D Nikita Nikitin, and G Curtis McElhinney four faces have been added. For the good of all involved in the rebuilding process, that list needs to grow. I won’t be speculating, as the Rick Nash made-for-TV movie seems to have a healthy running time. Yet, while Howson has stuck to his guns and refused to deal Nash for pennies on the dollar, he’s gone and addressed some legitimate holes. So, as I hit the ground running along with the next chapter in Columbus hockey, a brief look at the free agent acquisitions so far:
Sergei Bobrovsky (G)
It feels longer than three years since Steve Mason put together a league-high 10 shutouts and a Calder Trophy campaign. While much of the fan base feels his ship should have sailed by now, it seems his tenure in Columbus will not end this offseason. So, for the price of three draft picks, the team addresses a big need. They’ve acquired another young net minder whom they feel may have the brighter ice time ahead of him. Bobrovsky comes to Ohio’s capital off a backup year where he posted a 14-10-2 record in only 29 appearances. His 3.02 goals against average ranked 40th among qualified net minders last season, where only New Jersey’s Johan Hedberg played fewer games.
As the Flyers’ regular starter in 2010, he posted marks comparable to last year’s mainstay, Ilya Bryzgalov. Bobrovsky’s then-GAA of 2.59 would place him in the middle of the pack of last year’s goaltenders that had similar ice time. Ilya himself was under the microscope much of the 2011-2012 year, and his suspect performance in the playoffs may not make the Blue Jacket faithful too warm to the comparison. Yet Bobrovsky’s numbers are on par with or superior to Mason’s in both years.
While many fans find hope in this pickup, some may groan as they foresee another acquisition potentially blowing up in Howson’s face down the road. In 12 years, the organization has gone from an inaugural Ron Tugnutt-Marc Denis combo to this Mason-Bobrovsky affair. It’s never been the club’s bread and butter as they still search for the guy to establish some longevity at the position. Only time will tell if Bob’s best net minding is ahead of him, but he seems to have the tools and the work ethic to make that a reality.
Adrian Aucoin (D)
The journeyman’s two biggest assets to his seventh NHL club are experience and acceptance. He won’t be as heavily highlighted as most of his blueline brethren, but brings 17 years of NHL experience to a young group that’s already the Blue Jackets’ most solid unit. That includes 64 playoff games, albeit his latest postseason with Phoenix was cut short due to injuries. His numbers have slowly declined as of late, as he posted his lowest point total (9) in six seasons last year. But, he left his mentor’s mark on the Coyotes and young defenders like Keith Yandle. Now, he has a one-year, $2 million deal to work with similar projects in Columbus.
His acceptance shows in the fact that he is eager to come to the Blue Jackets. He received multiple offers, but Columbus rang first and proved to be the most enticing offer. At 39, he understands where his skill set is and is willing to embrace the role he’ll receive. That, unfortunately, seems exceedingly rare these days. With the Jeff Carter aftertaste still lingering, Columbus fans will embrace a player that embraces Columbus. Look at the reputation Jack Johnson earned in under two months due, in large part, to his polarity to Carter.
Johnson and Fedor Tyutin are just a pair of new teammates that Aucoin has already expressed excitement to play with. He’ll also rejoin James Wisniewki, whom he skated with when the two played for Chicago. He’ll click quickly with the locker room, which will manifest on the ice, even if small improvements don’t always show up in the stat line.
Nick Foligno (LW)
The former Senator has the luxury of going somewhere in the NHL where he has a great chance to flourish. With the necessary dropping of Marc Methot, the Blue Jackets gain a forward who just posted career-highs with 15 goals and 47 points. That point total would’ve been good enough for third on this club last season behind Nash and Vinny Prospal. With the captain (in theory) gone and being hard-pressed to crown Prospal as the points leader next season, it opens a big door for a guy like Foligno.
He also rejoins a former teammate in Jack Johnson, whom he played with as a member of the US under-17 and -18 squads. He’s also familiar with fellow Sudbury, Ont. native Derek MacKenzie, so chemistry won’t be an issue in Foligno’s case either. We could see a possible line pairing with MacKenzie or perhaps the up-and-coming Ryan Johansen. Either way, some upward movement is expected on a team that is needing point production.
The organization expects his role to increase to not just a bigger scoring threat, but a contributor in power play/penalty kill situations. His three-year, $9.5 million deal, signed last Friday, reflects that. He’s a versatile forward who Columbus believes can play any spot on the line. If he really does embrace the team and the direction it’s heading, he’ll be a very nice piece.
The obvious thing to say is that the Blue Jackets are probably not done dealing this offseason. Aside from the issue of the elephant in the room, the club needs another solid offensive asset, and there are still names available. These additions are nice compliments and (Bobrovsky and Foligno) will be under the microscope from their arrival. They are, after all, part of these first steps.